TO HITCH OR NOT TO HITCH by CATRYN POWER ON THE LONG LIST FOR THE 2020 FISH INTERNATIONAL MEMOIR COMPETITION

TO HITCH OR NOT TO HITCH

 One Friday evening towards the end of the summer of 1982, I had completed work early at 3pm and was waiting for a lift home. However, the friend who was giving me the lift had been sick all day and had not gone to work. Phones were not very common in those days and mobile phones were unknown to most of us. So with no lift and no private or public transport I was on the road hitch hiking once again. I was about sixty miles from my home in East Cork. I was working on an archaeological excavation in County Tipperary and I had by then obtained my primary degree in archaeology I was doing research for a Master’s degree in physical anthropology.

During the recent past of 2019 I was intrigued to have been asked by one teenager what was the meaning of hitch-hiking. I had forgotten that hitching, also known as thumbing, is no longer a common place pursuit. For those who know nothing about the practice, it is a way of carrying or transporting a person, who asks a driver usually a stranger, for a ride in their vehicle. A ride is usually, but not always, free. In Ireland, the United Kingdom, North America, and in large parts of Europe, most hitchhikers stand with their back turned to the direction of travel while facing oncoming vehicles, including cars, vans, trucks etc. The hitchhiker usually extends their arm towards the road with the thumb of their closed hand pointing upward or in the direction of the vehicle.

During the 1980’s and 1990’s when I was frequently hitching it was the manner in which many people travelled from place to place. Most of the population would wisely have not done so and many would have wisely warned me about the consequences of getting lifts from strangers. It was quite common throughout the world and still takes place on a small scale. Cars were not as common in the Ireland of the late 1970’s to the 1980’s.  People got lifts from people whom they knew or depended on the poor public transport system. Others walked for miles to get to their destinations at home or work. A few people cycled when distances were not too lengthy. While the loyal cyclists were out in all weathers there were fair-weather cyclists too. Most of the population did not own a car, and probably couldn’t afford one or didn’t really see the need for one. Usually people didn’t work that far from home. Drivers who would recognise the regular hitcher sometimes gave them a lift every day and sometimes a suitable monetary arrangement could be made.  Most of these drivers would have been neighbours or townspeople. I would get public transport when it was available. When buses frequently did not show up I resorted to hitching. I have hitched over large parts of Munster, Leinster and Connacht. Hitching was still a dangerous activity perhaps for a small percentage of people compared to that of today, which is generally considered more dangerous. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre of 1974 was a film which was screened for many weeks in the cinema and it would have stopped many people who were thinking of hitchhiking!

The driver who gives the hitcher a lift could also be in danger. After all the driver doesn’t always know who the hitchhiker really is. In the early 1980’s when three of my colleagues and I were hitching together with our archaeological equipment, a pick, a shovel etc. a lorry driver stopped for us. This happened north of Bennettsbridge in County Kilkenny. We had missed our lift as we had been out late in Kilkenny the previous night!  The following morning our supervisor, and provider of transport to work, called to find us still in bed and decided to drive away without us. We had to get to the excavation at the other side of the River Nore by 8am. We departed from our rented house as quickly as possible. It was my turn to have the breakfast of porridge, toast and tea and a variety of sandwiches ready. However, there was no chance of providing these on that morning in question. I grabbed a plastic bag and threw the makings of sandwiches for four into the plastic bag and into my ruck sack. When the driver stopped, my pals said to me that I should get into the high truck first as I was the most talkative. The truck was so high up that I had to be pushed up into the cab and then I helped drag the remaining three friends after me. As was my usual I chatted continually to the driver and explained what we were doing. When we had reached our destination, I realised that throughout the journey a breadknife had been poking through the plastic bag next to the left leg of the driver, which was nearest to me. I had felt the breadknife during our journey but I didn’t think that it was near the driver. He must have been a bit on edge wondering what these young people, dressed in shoddy clothing (some with holes in the knees long before the modern trend! And tears on the rear of denim jeans also!) were really up to. I wouldn’t be surprised if we were the last hitchers to whom he ever gave a lift. Alternatively, he may have had a laugh and believed our story. I pondered if he had ever seen the film ‘The Hitch-Hiker’ made in the 1950’s where the two men driving the car gave a lift to a psychopathic killer. This black and white film ‘noir’ was based on a true-life murderer who killed a number of people while obtaining lifts from them when he travelled from Illinois to California. In the movie all ended well when the killer was arrested. In real life the killer was given the death penalty. The film was well known in Ireland because one of the main actors Edmond O’Brien was born to parents who were from Tallow, in County Waterford. Edmond played one of the two men who were on a fishing expedition and gave the psychopath the lift.

One of my first hitching memories involved my guinea pig Tammy, who remained quiet and comfortable under my roomy dark conifer green smock-like winter coat (very fashionable at the time). The coat had a blouson effect which left plenty of room for Tammy. I had just bought Tammy in the pet shop. She was a beautiful shiny black short-haired cavy or guinea pig, whom I grew to adore. I had her as a pet for four to five years, along with several other gorgeous guinea pigs. I had spent one old punt to purchase her and therefore I had no money left for the bus. So I hitched from Cork City to my home in Youghal, which was at a distance of thirty miles.  A chap from my home stopped to give me a lift and it was only when we were near the journey’s end that he realised that I had a rat-like creature under my smock coat. He laughed and said he thought that the squeaking was a bad tummy problem, which I had. I told him that I had originally gone to Cork to spend my birthday money, with which I wanted to get two white mice. I would breed them and produce 1000 mice every year. I would make one old punt for every four mice which I would sell as pets. I had read this idea in some magazine. However, when I held it in my hand, the mouse went up my sleeve and I thought that I would lose it! So instead I bought one guinea pig, which cost the price of four mice. The driver said that he had given a lift to another animal that morning, a greyhound and its owner, who were hitching to the greyhound track in Cork City! The driver said that the owner of the greyhound, whom we both knew, hoped that they would get a lift home that evening. I assured him that the man and his dog probably got a lift. The driver, whom I encountered many times subsequently, often mentioned that daft day on which he had given lifts to myself and Tammy, and the greyhound and its owner. He had many laughs retelling the tale!

At other times I had a bus take me a certain distance up the road and I had brought my racing bike with me to do the remainder of the journey. This was usually on Sunday afternoons during summer months. I would be at the destination the evening before the working week began. When I worked for the Office of Public Works I had got buses from Youghal to Cork and another one to Cahir in County Tipperary. I brought my racing bike with me and I cycled for the rest of the journey. One of my routes was about twenty miles via the Glen of Aherlow where I had to avoid a pair of corgis who tried to take the legs from me! I resorted to freewheeling with my legs in the air! Luckily it was downhill! On other occasions I used a bicycle to travel up and down a thirty-mile gas pipeline scheme and used the smaller roads to access the construction route. I also travelled to work by bike in other counties also. Cycling was a huge part of my life.

In payment for some lifts, I have delivered bread with the bread man to the hotels and shops of the Dingle peninsula in Kerry and chickens (dead) for another delivery van to other hotels. I also had a regular lift from another bread man in County Waterford some years later, when I was working on a sewerage scheme in Dungarvan for the County Council. On another occasion I had been given a lift by the ‘mushroom’ men who brought mushrooms from Tallow in County Waterford to the English market in Cork City. They were on their return journey through Youghal when I had started thumbing at 7am at the Youghal/Waterford Bridge, after the long walk from the town. Off I went in the van with four or five men to an archaeological dig near Clonmel. As I got out of the van my boss, Martin, shouted over to me ‘Hi Kate, you are still late and where on earth were you with that gang?’ I just laughed and said ‘I will work late this evening’. Many archaeological excavations were not conveniently on bus routes!

At the end of one of those weeks I had got a lift from the Rosegreen side of Clonmel to north of the village of Ballymacarbery from an engineer who had been working with me. So with my rucksack on my back I said goodbye to the engineer and began walking down the road on that beautiful sunny afternoon. I enjoyed the walk down the warm tarmacadamed road. The fragrances including woodbine and other plants from the hedgerows was mighty and so pleasant and soothing following a busy week monitoring soil disturbance by a large heavy machine called a Hymac.

During the 1980’s I spent a lot of the summer months working on construction sites either doing pre-development monitoring or excavation. These sites were located in many counties throughout the island. At my place(s) of work, if archaeological deposits were seen by me, then the machine driver would have to stop digging until I had examined the findings and decided what the next procedure was.  It could be anything from a half hour to six weeks to deal with an archaeological site, hence the unpopularity of archaeology with construction workers! This was all in accordance with state legislation and the protection of heritage. Some of the sites which I uncovered varied from a Bronze Age habitation of wooden huts, to a Bronze Age cremated burial, to a medieval corn-drying kiln. I worked at the site near Clonmel for a number of months over two summers and the site would become a very important Irish archaeological one. All of this was very exciting to a young archaeologist.

As I continued walking on a high road overlooking the River Nire I could see breath-taking views of the beautiful countryside of Counties Waterford and Tipperary. The road was about half way between Clonmel and Dungarvan, a twenty-mile stretch, on a straight road overlooked by the Comeragh Mountains. An hour previously I had a lift in a mini car. I had the life frightened out of me. I sat into the front passenger seat of the car. It was filthy inside and it stank like a sewer.  I said hello to the driver and with a smile he said ‘Good evening young lady. I am going to the track in Youghal but I must first stop at my home, five miles off this road. You can stay with me or I can drop you off at the turn for home, which is about six miles down the road.’   I replied ‘Thank you. I will go as far as the junction where you turn of and I will see how I get on from there.’ ‘Right my girl’ he said. I heard a snort and a sneeze coming from the back seat and I jumped. The man laughed and said ‘Say hello to Danielle, the Belle of Toureen’. I slowly turned my head and saw the head of a silky grey-haired greyhound. She was fully grown and such a lovely dog. As I said hello to her, she put her snout on the back of my seat and left it there. The man said ‘She likes you. She is due to race at the greyhound track this evening. She has won all of her three races and hopefully she will win the big cup tonight. Isn’t that right Danielle, my girl?’ He then stopped the car and I said good bye to Danielle and her owner. I never checked how they did!

I walked along the road, it was still very warm. Along the road side I saw a shape move in some wooden fencing. As I got closer I could see that it was a donkey. He stuck his head in between the posts while I put out my hand to pat him on the head. He shoved his soft warm muzzle into my hand and I patted him there. He stared at me with his beautiful eyes. As I stood there I noticed that he seemed very old and neglected. He walked along by the fencing as I slowly walked along also. I could see that he had great difficulty in moving but he tried to keep going with me. I stopped and leaned over the top of the posts on the field boundary and could see his poor feet. He must have been in agony. He had about four inches of growth on his hooves. He must not have been seen by a farrier for a long time.  Neither had he eaten much as I looked closely at him I could see clearly that he was nearly emaciated.

I became very annoyed at the people or person who was responsible for this neglect, which was in fact a common cruelty in this country and still persists today. I thought about this beautiful creature and how anyone could be so cruel to him. For many years I had been familiar with the Donkey Sanctuary in Devon, but in Ireland in those days there was no such place one could turn. The Donkey Sanctuary had not been founded in Ireland until 1987 by Paddy Barrett, a fantastic person, who lived locally in Knockardbardane near Liscarrol in North Cork.  Neither were there mobile phones in use at the time, where I could have contacted someone who could help. While I walked and hitched I tried to think of a way of helping this poor donkey. By the time that I got home, I had stopped at two garda stations to report this case of animal cruelty. Why two? At the first one, the officer said that I would be considered wasting the state’s time and money investigating an animal that was only fit for the ‘knacker’s yard’. At any rate the owner was probably dead and the relatives would get to the donkey in due course.   I was appalled at this middle aged man’s attitude to the animal. How long was this officer behaving in this manner? Had this officer ever looked after any animal? At the helpful garda station there was a totally different attitude. The young garda there said he would get the animal welfare people on the case immediately. In fact, they were on their way to this area that night, where there were other cases of animal cruelty. Some individuals at a meeting at a greyhound track were being investigated for leaving some greyhounds behind on the beach, to fend for themselves. The dogs became emaciated and eventually wandered into town and could be seen putting their heads into bins looking for food. No one was ever prosecuted for cruelty to those animals.

Many years later I found greyhounds in the same predicament when I was working in Blackpool, a suburb of Cork City. I was directing an archaeological project there involving the construction of a motorway bypass in a zone where many eighteenth/nineteenth century industrial archaeological monuments existed.  To make way for the route the demolition of a huge chimney stack of Hewitt’s Distillery, where Irish whiskey or Uisce Beatha (‘Water of Life’) was produced. Other eighteenth/nineteenth century industrial buildings were recorded, some removed and archaeological excavations took place in advance of road construction. I was lamenting the demolition of this fine chimney stack at 7am on one winter’s morning when digging on a main road had to be carried out before the daily traffic started in Cork city. It was a very dark morning and I got quite a fright when a shadow moved swiftly on the brick walling of the canal behind me. I watched as the shadow moved off the canal and over a partially demolished wall of a grain store. I could see this shape moving behind the blocks of ashlar limestone of a recently created ruin. I quietly followed the shadow and on the other side of the limestone rubble there was a vast area of cobbled flooring. There was a mangy-looking emaciated greyhound stretched out on the floor.  It was a female who once must have had a shiny grey coat, almost like that of a chinchilla. Her coat was now matted and some patches were bald. I missed a step and a stone fell off the rubble and hopped along the cobbles. The dog was gone out of the grain store before I took my eyes away from the loosened rubble. I never saw her again. However, one security guard who did night shift informed me that there were currently two greyhounds living around the grounds of the disused mills. Both dogs were underfed and probably deserted during the night following a defeat in racing at the local greyhound track. They were left to wander the city at night. The mill buildings were a perfect place for a dog to hide. There were many hiding places in the old buildings of the mills and distilleries. It would also be ideal to get food, in particular by the workmen who probably threw away or gave her an unfinished sandwich or part of their lunch. Many years later, there are still good people who treat animals well but there is still a sector of society who have total disregard for animals.

There was one very bad hitching experience which I had. I believe that I was lucky to escape with my life. The following is a statement which I made to the Gardai at the time and also repeated years later when there was a request for information on a number of girls who went missing in the 1980’s: ‘On July 5th 1985 I had been working at Kilkieran, near Carrick-on-Suir, and got a lift after work, to Pilltown. I was heading to Waterford City to get a bus to Youghal. One of the County Council men working with me gave me the lift; it was heavily raining and the wipers in his car were not functioning correctly, and this slowed the journey. So I missed the bus from Waterford to Youghal, which departed at about 6-6.30pm. I walked through Waterford and got to the Cork road, at the junction with the road to Tramore. I started hitching in the heavy rain.

A man in a car (a Renault, blue I think) gave me a lift; I was delighted to get a lift but I didn’t take note of the registration number. I often hitched in those days as I worked in many counties. Then at some distance out the road, while driving, the man put his hand down my shirt and held my left breast. I shouted at him to take his hand away and stop the car. He duly did and made a comment to the wording of ‘oh you’re not interested in that sort of thing’ (not exact wording) and left me out of the car near Kilmeaden. I was terrified. I can remember the face of that particular man; he had a very narrow long face, and was tall, probably 5’10” at least. His hair was brown and he was probably aged about late thirties/early forties (mature settled man, I thought, as I was aged 25 years). I have no other information on the man as he confined the talk to me and where I was working etc.’.  This experience stopped me from hitching for a long time, but foolishly it didn’t stop me completely. I persuaded myself that everyone on the road can’t be wicked. They were not.

On another earlier journey one chap asked me for advice on how he would tell his children the ‘facts of life’. That got me out of his car very quickly. Then there was the sleaze-bag from California, originally Irish, who put his hand on my thigh; said he thought I was ‘on the game’, I promptly slapped his hand, and ended up on the side of the road, seconds later. Most people, men and the few women, who gave me lifts, were sound. I even got a lift from a man who had picked up two ‘hookers’ who were hitching in front of me at the Dunkettle roundabout in Glanmire, near Cork City. The two girls finished their night’s work, were on their way home early one morning. When the driver stopped for the two young women, they said that I lived near them and could he include me in the lift. It was jolly decent and thoughtful of them. On this journey I kept asking them where they had been shopping and where were their shopping bags! I could not figure it out how they had gone to the City that morning and were coming home so soon without shopping!  A few years later the local bus to Cork City never arrived. I started to thumb with a local girl whom I later discovered was a hooker. We got to the city for our work but I decided then that I couldn’t hack this thumbing game any longer. I had enough of saving the environment so I saved and bought a car which unfortunately puffed out petrol fumes like most of the others. I had spent seventeen years travelling on buses. I felt empowered with a car. It had huge consequences for my life and the opportunities which it brought. Within a few years, I had bought an environmentally friendly car, partially battery operated. So ended my hitching days!

 

© 2020. CATRYN POWER. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

 

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